Horror is perhaps best dictated to the senses – to the animal rather than the intellectual faculties. Amelia B. Edwards shoots for both in this cerebrally visceral tale by cushioning a quaint, fireside chat with a scholar of the natural and supernatural between two lonely, agonizing experiences of fear. The first is an experience that anyone might have when a car breaks down in an unfamiliar county on a winter night. The second is a vision that most can only say to have viewed – and smelled – in their nightmares. It is the intellect behind its construction that projects this story directly into the soft underbelly of irrational human terror. Like Wells, Edwards (whom E. F. Bleiler ranks amongst Le Fanu and Broughton as one of the Victorian’s best supernaturalists) introduces us to a bleak landscape in a bleak universe – one hostile to humanity and devoid of help or guidance.
The plot is virtually archetypal: lost in the grim, snowy moors of northern England, a hapless hunter is on the brink of death when he is directed to the warm cabin of a bitter alchemist, whose theories on the unknown spike his imagination before setting off once more, this time in hopes of encountering the local coach set to come their direction. The title of the story allows for little subtlty: he does find a coach thundering down the frosty highway, and he does halt it and manage to gain entrance to its interior. But what lurks within the interior might send him rushing back into the black winter night.
Edwards’ chilling tale is – especially in its climactic scene – a montage of masterful atmospherics. A blend of shadowy scenes weave one into the other, culminating in the pungent horror awaiting in the phantom coach. Tension builds and depresses like a road bobbing along a series of moorland hills. While it may be argued that the middle section fails to set up the conclusion, the antique metaphysician suspends the reality of the frosted air and the pensive wife waiting at home. Upon entering his candle-lit domain the protagonist is ushered into a world previously invisible to him – one which is only too real once he exits. The wasted desolation of the moor country minimizes human agency and enhances the threat of the outer unknown.
The cosmic terror of the outerspaces and unbroken landscapes – of impersonal snow and all-consuming night – is temporarily deflated by the appearance of a lantern and the safety of the philosopher’s hearth. The temporary respite may seem jarring and unnecessary, but it is an essential transition: before the conversation in the cabin, the north country is a bleak, uninhabited cosmos – a threat of its own, godless and teeming with spiritual hostility. After conversing with the exiled academic, however, the blackness he returns to is now the domain of the once-invisible world: the universe is no longer the same to him, no longer warm and promising, but cold and consuming: he is indeed the “fourth inside passenger in that Phantom Coach” a fellow passenger on a grisly journey, finally conscious of his awful status in the universe.
You can read the story here.